The UK water sector is facing challenges like never before. Wastewater performance and leakage are under the spotlight and the cost of living is rising fast amid inflationary pressures. Investment needs have never been greater so water companies are being challenged to deliver more for less when they submit their business plans for the next five years from 2025. If services are to keep improving against a backdrop of greater efficiency we have to keep on innovating.
In 2017 we saw that there were very few new suppliers coming into the UK water sector and we recognised we needed to get fresh thinking into the industry. That’s why we set up the United Utilities Innovation Lab, it was a talent trawl to encourage the idea-makers to come and join us in a safe, supportive environment. They had access to our data, our systems, our senior people and our legal and financial know-how, to help co-create the next generation of products and services for the sector.
Looking back, the Lab has gone from strength to strength. We’ve been through a pandemic and still managed to host four Innovation Labs. In total we’ve had over 800 applications, shortlisted 250 suppliers, listened to 120 pitches and provided places on the Lab for 26 successful candidates. Over half of those ideas have come to fruition and eight have won contracts with United Utilities.
We’ve been through a pandemic and still managed to host four Innovation Labs.
Pleasingly, all eight suppliers are start-ups, transferring from telecoms, electronics and marine sectors. All eight have gone on to win equity investment and some have even moved here to the North West of England. I’m particularly proud that the success and growth of those suppliers has led to 45 new jobs being created here in the North West.
So let’s look at some of those success stories and the benefit they are bringing to the water industry.
Fitbit for pipes
UK firm Datatecnics took part in Innovation Lab 1 and improved its ‘Fitbit for pipes’ idea, adding new sensors to existing pipes to give us better information on asset and ground condition. Its system helps us know which pipes are healthy and which ones need replacing.
UK company FIDO Tech took part in Innovation Lab 2. Its leakage detection solutions are now up and running at United Utilities and also being used around the world and it went on to become the first company in the water sector and second globally to earn the KPMG UK Tech Award in 2021, a tremendous achievement.
Robotic concrete printing
Innovation Lab 3 brought sustainable concrete fabrication into the water industry in the form of Changemaker 3D, a company from Malvern, UK. Its 3D robotic concrete printing is quicker and less wasteful than traditional cast or pre-cast concrete, and Changemaker has used the lab as a springboard to win contracts with other clients in other sectors.
And as Innovation Lab 4 draws to a close we have already signed a contract with Altitude Thinking from Grangemouth in Scotland which has developed a series of autonomous, remotely operated vehicles to collect water quality samples and data from difficult to reach locations. These are already being used as part of a research project to help build a picture of water quality in Windermere.
As the suppliers learn more about us, they spot inefficiencies we hadn’t seen and so their idea gets continually improved. We have agreed several innovation partnerships to unlock new ideas and this ‘first-mover’ advantage is really paying off to strengthen how we work with these new suppliers.
Innovation Lab 5 is coming up later this year and I’m sure it won’t disappoint.
To keep up to date with progress follow us @uugroupplc or visit www.unitedutilities.com/innovation